Conducting Fieldwork in China

If you’re a masters or Ph.D. student conducting social science research on China for your thesis or dissertation, at some point you might find yourself in China for fieldwork. Having recently spent a year in China for my own dissertation fieldwork, here are some suggestions for a successful (or at least not overwhelmingly painful) fieldwork experience in China.

1) You’ll need an affiliation. Unless you are going to China for very short periods of time, you will need an affiliation in the country for three reasons. First of all, you will need an institution to help obtain a residence permit. Most tourist visas only allow you to stay for 30 days, but if you are affiliated with an organization, usually a university, they will sponsor your resident permit, usually for an academic year. Second, having an affiliation establishes a sense of belonging somewhere (a legacy of the danwei mentality) and gives you institutional legitimacy, which is particularly important if you are conducting interviews. Potential interviewees may be suspicious of a random foreigner asking to speak with them, but may be reassured if they see you are a “senior visiting student” at XYZ University. Third, an affiliation may make it easier to find housing and provide other perks, like library access and cheap cafeterias. Make sure you plan ahead to establish your affiliation—many universities have formal application procedures that operate on a typical academic schedule, like spring deadlines for fall admissions.

2) Don’t necessarily affiliate at the top universities. Many students want to be affiliated at one of the best universities in China, which is understandable since they are prestigious. An affiliation like Beida or Fudan may certainly open some doors, but you’ll likely pay a lot for the privilege, and you’ll often find that the faculty are themselves overextended, with little time for you. Likewise, the administrative staff may be less helpful since they too are overloaded and don’t have much sympathy for yet another foreign student nagging them with problems. I affiliated at Beida at my advisor’s urging, but in retrospect, I would have approached one of China’s ocean universities in smaller cities suited to my work on fisheries management.

3) Load up on your guanxi. Anyone who works on China probably does not need to have this point explained. You will get much, much further in your fieldwork if you come through introductions to the people with whom you want to speak. And don’t hesitate to talk about your research with random people and ask if they might know someone. You never know—your friend’s kindergarten student’s father might have a nephew who happens to work in the very government ministry you’ve been unsuccessfully trying to gain access to for months. 

4) Have copies of an affiliation letter from your institution for cold calls. Sometimes you’re just not going to be able to find a connection for a potential interviewee, and you may have to contact some people cold. In this case, you will want to demonstrate some legitimacy by presenting a letter of affiliation from whatever institution with which you are officially connected.

5) It’s easier to say no on the phone than it is in person. After a few times calling potential interviewees on the phone to see if I could set up an interview and being declined as soon as they heard my accented Chinese, I started to write letters explaining myself and my interview request and hand delivering them to the institution along with a business card and presenting my letter of affiliation. Furthermore, I would not request an immediate response, instead just requesting the interview for a later date so as not to put them on the spot. All the while appearing very friendly, cheerful, and unthreatening. This was usually successful, except in a couple of cases where even enlisting in a Chinese friend’s help didn’t work.

6) Hire a Chinese research assistant to bring to meetings with you. I wish I had thought of this earlier, instead of trying to conduct every interview alone. I only learned this lesson about halfway through my fieldwork, when one of my Chinese friends happened to come with me to an interview. The energy of the interview was markedly more relaxed. In addition to any psychological effect having another Chinese person accompanying the dubious foreigner, having a research assistant is great for any translations you might need, and as an additional note-taker. Conducting interviews in your native language is hard enough—you have to take notes on what was just said while digesting the information fast enough to ask any necessary follow-up questions on that particular point AND keeping your mind on the overarching interview goals and remembering your other questions. Doing it in Chinese is draining. Graduate students generally do not have much money to hire a research assistant, but it really is worth scraping together the funds for this.

7) Come bearing gifts. This is another no-brainer for anyone with China experience. They don’t have to be lavish (you’re a student; it shouldn’t be!), but bring some token items from your home university, like pens, to give to your interviewees, to express your appreciation to them for meeting with you. 

Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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